Envisioned as a Kickstarter and developed by Steamforged Games, Dark Souls: The Board Game brings the popular video game franchise into the realm of figurines and dice. Capturing the essence of the video games’ dungeon-crawling action, the board game is a challenging grind that tests both your endurance and patience.
All the nifty figurines that arrive in the box have temporary packaging; the cards are all on typical poker-card stock, and there is a pile of standard-sized cards and tinier cards. The character cards have to be punched out, as do all the tokens. Most of this is standard procedure when opening a larger board game like Dark Souls, but you if you care about the lifespan of the pieces, you might want to have a plan for the figurines after you unbox it. My concerns about the game begin as soon as we play; I notice there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to the bad guys, and the tiles aren’t very interesting, either.
For a game that attempts to bring the Dark Souls aesthetic to a board game, the attention to detail in the game environment is severely lacking. I get it: we’ve got tiles and minis, and the Bloodborne card game doesn’t exactly have massive set pieces, either; I will compare the two games only because they are both licensed games from the same video game universe (Dark Souls and Bloodborne are very similar games developed by From Software and are affectionately referred to as Soulsborne games), and while the licensed games are completely different, at least one of them manages to capture the spirit of the game while being fun.
In fact, what is this game’s objective: show up and kill stuff until you fight a bigger monster, and then kill that one? Sure, there is no great prize to win at the end of any board game other than the emotional value one derives from the experience; and in team games, failure for one player can mean failure for the whole team. Especially in the Dark Souls board game, which can break you.
Mainly, it breaks your patience. I am familiar with legacy-style games where you can easily become emotionally-connected to the game world, your character, and the objectives; in the Dark Souls game, the only way to be able to meet your final objective with a sense of preparedness is by playing the same scenarios over and over again. In fact, after you defeat the mini-boss, you get to move around on the same tiles but with more challenging enemy layouts. This turns the game into nothing more than a slog. The game feels like work.
I think the idea is that you acquire better gear to cleave your way through the scenarios faster, until you have “leveled” your character’s stats enough so that they wield weapons that can get the job done against the boss. This is the part where I discovered the game missed its biggest opportunity: the treasure. You can obtain it by purchasing it from the blacksmith, killing the mini-boss/final boss, or by opening chests that don’t appear in every game or on every tile. And the stack of treasure is massive; you may actually buy a lot of useless gear and upgrades and achieve absolutely nothing in the game.
This reviewer had to mess around with some of the house rules regarding treasure. Don’t you want your imaginary character to have the ability to do cool things? Not everyone in your “party” will get gear; your team shares a number of “souls” (currency) acquired after each enemy encounter, and souls are spent on either upgrading your characters so they can meet the minimum requirements to use gear, or buying gear. If you buy gear and don’t have the stats, it feels bad. There is the possibility that one player on your team will end up taking charge because they get the right gear, which can make everyone else feel useless or ineffective. Then, of course, there’s the emotional investment from the one person who believes they know what the rest of the team can do to ensure victory, and when the team loses, there is the possibility for resentment. While this is in true in many games, Dark Souls automatically sets aside casual gamers who just want to play for fun or those serious gamers who want to be immersed in the experience.
So while the “game of dynamic movement” might include a strategy element, it is wholly dependent on the gear that you may or may not ever get, and even then, it’s a matter of choosing the weapon and simply managing your resources while telling your friends how to make sure you don’t die.
There is so little variety in enemy configurations/powers/styles that after one playthrough you find yourself wondering how likely it is that you’ll play again. It was a grind the first time, and there seems to be little promise that it would be any different the second time around. This is probably the most frustrating part of the game: the fact that I know expansions were made for this game and they did not release at retail. The game is very bare-bones, despite the price ($117.99 USD on Amazon.com) as far as content goes. The game designers must have playtested the game enough to realize that the first box serves as a decent introduction to the game; as a die-hard Dark Souls fan who sees that there is potential, I would certainly pick up an expansion right away to see what a difference it makes. Not shipping with expansions is probably a grievous error, because when the expansions finally arrive, I can’t see myself being motivated the give the game another try after it has been sitting on the shelf collecting dust.
At its core, the Soulsborne video games are dungeon grinds, but there is an intrinsic component that sets them apart from an action game; the mysterious lore, and the attention to detail in the smallest texture in the game world. While casual video gamers would suggest the stories in the Soulsborne video games are obscure at best, it is actually very rich in content, with devotees interpreting and establishing the lore and creating popular YouTube videos based on these interpretations. With the aesthetic completely stripped away, the Dark Souls video games become nothing more than dungeon crawls, and upon playing a board game that is exactly that one part of Dark Souls, I have to ask myself; why not just play Dungeons and Dragons? Even the D&D board games offer a variety of options and objectives.
I think it would have been neat if they designed the game with the lore in mind; all the item descriptions in the video game come with some obscure lore references, and I think the character cards could have been made bigger to accommodate bigger treasure cards with some flavorful text. This may seem like such a silly gripe about a board game, but when you strip away the Dark Souls universe and leave the content with nothing but characters and figures, there isn’t a whole lot to enjoy.
For the sake of comparison, board game fans are probably familiar with how the Arkham Horror board game from Fantasy Flight Games turned out. A cooperative board game that uses terminology, themes, and an aesthetic that fits Lovecraftian literature, the Arkham game is an example of what the Dark Souls board game could have been.
The Bloodborne card game, for a fourth of the price, manages to have quick gameplay and fun character interactions. Of course, the Bloodborne game didn’t come with cool minis, a fact that I find lamentable, but there is proof that the concept of a game punishing you for dying can still be fun – it simply didn’t translate well to the Dark Souls board game.
As a die-hard fan of the Soulsborne universe, I was disappointed. With a gaming group of people who are fans of the video game series, I think the game could be a lot of fun. But $120 for the potential that the game might be fun someday when the expansion’s release is a huge investment. As a Kickstarter, I can see why the allure would get the game made in the first place. The figurines are beautiful, and it’s Dark Souls, which has a very devoted fanbase. If I want to play a fun game with some friends, or our scheduled “game night” is at the tail end of a rather grueling work week (and I know one of my friends feels the same), Dark Souls: The Board Game is probably the last game I would consider.